Dr Christopher Rollason
Published in The Statesman (Kolkata/Calcutta), 13 Aug 2005,
Lifestyle section, p. 2 and at:
A stone’s throw from Windsor Castle, Eton College has an incontestable place in British history as the school which, since its foundation in 1440, has educated a remarkable number of eminent (male) ruling-class figures, as well as more dissident elements such as George Orwell. Eton also has a notable connection with India, having supplied no less than eleven Viceroys over the colonial period. Times change, but the connection remains and is now richly documented in a fascinating exhibition, ‘Eton and India’, open from 20 April to 30 September 2005 at the College’s Brewhouse Gallery and masterminded by Eton history master Andrew Robinson.
The first Etonian linked with the subcontinent seems to have been the seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn, an early investor in the East India Company. Later, another Etonian founded R. Thomas and Co, a firm involved in the indigo and jute businesses in Calcutta. The connection took on political and military colours with the campaigns of Lord Cornwallis in the Third Mysore War against Tipu Sultan and Richard Wellesley’s consolidation of the Company’s territories. Etonian Governors-General included Lord Canning, in office at the time of the 1857 rebellion, while the long line of Viceroys supplied by the College includes Lords Dufferin, Curzon and Linlithgow.
This official history is amply chronicled in the exhibition through documents, photographs and memorabilia, stretching all the way to Partition and Independence and including key pieces of historical evidence such as letters to Linlithgow from both George V and Gandhi. British opposition to the Raj, too, is embodied a copy of ‘Talking to India’, a volume edited in 1943 by George Orwell, then talks supremo for the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service but also a determined opponent of British rule.
Nor is the more personal and sentimental side of the British presence neglected. There are moving talismans from the life of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the Etonian who, as British Resident in Hyderabad from 1798 to 1805, controversially took a Muslim wife and has latterly become the subject of William Dalrymple’s best-selling book ‘White Mughals’. Also present is Duleep Singh, last Maharajah of the Punjab and onetime custodian of the Koh-i-Noor, who sent his sons to Eton, while his daughter became a distinguished resident of the nearby village of Penn in Buckinghamshire. On the cultural side too, contemporary Etonians have made major contributions to Indian studies, as the exhibition bears witness with copies of David Gilmour’s recent biographies of Kipling and Curzon, as well as the classic study of Satyajit Ray by (another) Andrew Robinson – no relation to the exhibition organiser, but as keen an Indianist.
The Eton-India connection extends to India’s education system, and reverberates to the present day. The 1880s saw the establishment of the four ‘Chief’s Colleges’, boarding schools set up on the English model to educate native rulers’ sons. One of these, Mayo College in Ajmer, founded in 1872, was described by the then Viceroy, Lord Lytton, as ‘India’s Eton’, and to this day the Rajasthan school maintains an exchange programme under which Mayo pupils study at Eton and Etonians spend gap-year time teaching at Mayo. A later foundation, Doon School in Dehra Dun, set up in 1935, also maintains ties with Eton (its first head was an Etonian), and the exhibition graphically illustrates the links with both Indian schools. In the literary field, we may recall that Orwell was, through his friendship with Mulk Raj Anand, an early champion of Indian Writing in English, and it is interesting to note in this connection that among Doon College’s best-known living alumni are IWE heavyweights Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, while, similarly, Mayo’s include Vikram Chandra.
In the Raj era, Etonians went out to India to rule. In the twenty-first century, the connection will no doubt continue to flourish, with Eton’s alumni finding, in the country their forebears once governed, a new role as valued partners, or indeed employees, of Indian software companies and outsourcing powerhouses – no longer at viceroy’s or governor’s residencies, but on the gleaming campuses of Wipro or Infosys. As Andrew Robinson says in the exhibition catalogue, ‘it is highly likely that many more Etonians of the present generation will find themselves working in India and for Indians’. The long-standing Anglo-Indian relationship is now mutating in fast and surprising ways. This excellent exhibition serves as a powerful reminder to both parties of the richness and complexity of a historical connection that is today, once again, coming very much alive.